6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the additional initiatives he plans for persons working in science, information technology and STEM that wish to convert to be primary and secondary teachers; the additional costs of conversion for mature students; his further plans to mitigate this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 14420/18 asked on 29 Mar 2018)

Deputy Joan Burton: I want to ask the Minister about the plans his Department has to encourage, support and enable people who may have expertise in STEM subjects, including mathematics and science, and what proposals, if any, his Department has to encourage people who may want to transfer from those areas to becoming primary or secondary teachers. The current requirements mean that people who want to transfer - a number want to do so every year - will face a very high barrier of fees for graduate courses and postgraduate courses to qualify. Does the Minister have any plans in view of the grave shortage of STEM, science and mathematics teachers in our schools?

Deputy Richard Bruton: I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Last November, I launched a STEM policy statement and implementation plan which aims to make Ireland the best in Europe in STEM by 2026. The statement focuses on the many strengths in STEM education in Ireland while providing a roadmap to address the areas for development. I recognise that the achievement of our STEM goals will rely greatly on the availability of suitability qualified teachers to meet our schools’ needs. In that regard, the Deputy may be aware that I recently announced, following consultation with the Irish Universities Association, an expansion of the number of places on post-primary teacher education courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in priority areas, with specific reservation of many of these extra places for STEM. There will be 280 such additional places at undergraduate level and 100 at postgraduate level.

In addition, earlier this week I convened the first meeting of the teacher supply steering group, which is chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. The group will consider the issues that impact on teacher supply, including the provision of conversion courses for persons working in priority areas such as ICT and STEM, and oversee a programme of actions according to strict timelines and clear deliverables to meet important needs. In undertaking its task, the group will be cognisant of the requirement that all persons wishing to teach in recognised schools must meet the professional registration standards and criteria set by the Teaching Council, which is the professional regulatory body for the teaching profession.

The Deputy should note also that mature students are eligible to apply for a range of financial supports, including under the student grant scheme and the student assistance fund.

Deputy Joan Burton: Will the Minister tell Members what is his estimate of the likely annual cost for a person to transfer from a job in STEM and to retrain as a teacher for primary or secondary education? How many years is that likely to take? How long must the person wait to get on a course? At the moment the indicative cost of postgraduate courses, I understand, is €5,000 to €6,000 a year. Can the Minister confirm that? Can he suggest how people are meant to give up well-paying jobs in STEM to follow a career in teaching that they really want to go into? These people are desperately needed. In fact, a significant element of our whole economy in regard to IT could hit the rocks if we do not have enough people qualified in this area.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The situation is as the Deputy says. Postgraduates have fees of the order of €5,000, depending on the college, and it is now a two-year course, as the Deputy knows. This is one of the areas that will be examined by this group. I would point out that undergraduate access to post-primary teaching is now as large a source of supply and, with the new increase of 280 places at undergraduate level, it will become a significantly larger source of supply. We are ensuring young people can enter post-primary STEM education through an undergraduate route that does not require them to pursue a masters degree.

In reference to people who want to switch careers, that is one of the areas which I have asked the group to look at specifically, in particular the ways in which this can be better facilitated. The reply did point out, of course, that it is the Teaching Council which set the requirement of two years. There may be ways to be more flexible in the approach within that two years in order to encourage and support people who are switching careers. I take the Deputy’s point that it is a good source of people to look to, in addition to the new entrants at undergraduate level.

Deputy Joan Burton: For many working-class students who go to college and take up STEM careers, and then find they want to transfer and become teachers, as the Minister has acknowledged, it will cost them €5,000 a year in fees alone for at least two years. He seems perfectly happy with that idea. Does he understand what it costs to leave a job, or maybe hold on to some element of a part-time job, perhaps when people have emerging family commitments, as well as issues around housing? Yet, the Minister says that, in order to do this, they will have to find €5,000 a year in fees alone at a time when they will also have to put clothes on their backs, keep a roof over their heads and pay for their keep and perhaps that of their families. I believe the Minister does not understand the struggle it will be for many people who would otherwise transfer. The economics of what he, as an economist, has just laid out for us is fine in economic terms but does he realise it is almost impossible to do what he is suggesting they do? Finding a spare €5,000 a year is fine if a person is well off but not for an ordinary working person.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The position is that this has been the approach to getting a masters or other postgraduate qualification for people who have done either a primary degree or who are coming from outside the sector into the teaching profession. While that decision was made before my time, I recognise this is creating obstacles, specifically for our ambition to expand teaching in the STEM area. I have actively addressed it in providing new routes for people to get into the teaching of STEM. I have also set up a group to look specifically at what is implicit in the Deputy’s suggestion, namely, that we need to make it easier for people to take that postgraduate route who have perhaps worked elsewhere and for whom the fees would be a financial obstacle. We are looking specifically at that. The inference that in some way I am ignoring it or do not understand it is inaccurate.